Is the 'gig economy' affecting builders' mental health?

If you work on a building site, are self-employed or have a zero-hours contract, you might be surprised to know you work in the ”gig economy”. This is the economy characterised by temporary work and irregular hours, pay and working conditions.

With Mental Health Awareness week upon us, this is the perfect time to ask, what is this way of working doing to your mental health? And, just as important, what can you do about it?

We all know building sites can be dangerous: the building trade lost 43 colleagues to avoidable accidents in 2015/16. But there’s an even bigger killer out there: suicide. It kills more than 6,000 people every year in the UK (nearly 11 in every 100,000). There are around 2.6 million construction workers in the UK. That means, on average, 280 will take their own life each year.

Most of them (three in four) will be men. Those aged between 30 and 59 are particularly at risk (more than 20 in every 100,000 become victims). That means every working day, someone’s son, husband, brother, boyfriend, or dad doesn’t come home.

Is the gig economy too tough for too many?

Some people enjoy the freedom of being their own boss. Others find the insecurity stressful and depressing. Sadly, the anxiety of low pay and irregular hours can drive people to drink and drugs. It can even lead to family breakdowns – and worse.

As Louise Ward, policy and communications director at the British Safety Council points out: “A great many people are affected by stress, anxiety and depression at some point in their lives, and a significant number of working days are lost each year due to mental ill health. Employers have much to gain from recognising this issue and acting to raise awareness of mental wellbeing, as well as ensuring the physical safety of their workers through the provision of regular training, support, advice and information.”

The Good Day at Work Report (2015) found that one in four UK adults experiences mental health problems each year. Stress alone forces one in five people to call in sick. Yet 90 per cent of them feel unable to tell their boss the real reason they were off.

If you’ve ever felt like that, you’ll know how bad it can be. You should also know you are not alone. If you talk to your mates, you might find many of them feel the same.

Are you your own boss?

Construction has always used sub-contractors and casual labour. Hardly surprising when more than 70 per cent of the firms in the UK are micro-businesses or sole-traders. New ONS figures reveal there are now 4.77 million self-employed workers (15 per cent of the workforce).

Around 30 per cent of gig economy workers say self-employment is their “preferred choice.” However, 14 per cent say it is “out of necessity.” Many take the work to make ends meet when they don’t have a full-time job.

The TUC highlights these pressures in a new report. This reveals that self-employed and other gig economy workers tend to earn 30-40 per cent less than average. It also calculates that 3.2 million adults (one in 10) are now in what it calls “precarious employment.”

Many gig economy workers lack basic employment safeguards. There is often no protection against unfair dismissal and no right to redundancy pay. While nearly half a million have no right to sick pay.

For these workers life can appear bleak, particularly if they have few savings. Sadly, as the Samaritans report, disadvantaged men are 10-times more likely to take their own lives than those who are better off. The Samaritans also say “irregular, insecure or temporary work and self-employment” are contributory factors.

What now?

Step 1
The first step to protecting you and your family and friends is to be aware of and understand these pressures.

Step 2
Start talking. Many people find it hard to discuss their feelings. That’s particularly true for men who think they have to be tough. Being macho might look good in films but it doesn’t help in real life. To survive, we’re must learn to talk to our mates.

That’s why the Health in Construction Leadership Group (HCLG) launched the Mates In Mind charity in January 2017. Supporters include MIND, Mental Health First Aid England, the British Safety Council and the Samaritans. Mates In Mind is creating a complete mental health and wellbeing plan for UK construction workers.

Land Securities is backing the scheme. It now requires contractors bidding for projects longer than six-weeks to use the Mates in Mind plan. Other big name supporters include Balfour Beatty, Careys and Willmott Dixon. With 300 businesses helping, Mates in Mind aims to reach 100,000 construction workers in 2017.

What can you do to protect your wellbeing?

Perhaps you take your mental health for granted. Don’t. Your mental health is as precious as your physical health. Poor mental health can affect your timekeeping, concentration and decision-making. That can lead to more accidents.

To make construction work safer for everyone, the Considerate Constructors Scheme (CCS) has also launched its own Mind Matters campaign. This aims to make it easier for builders to discuss stress, anxiety and depression.

Know who to ask for help

Poor mental health is a complicated illness – many things affect it. We can’t say there is a direct link with the gig-economy. But we know there is a link between job security, working conditions and mental wellbeing.

We all have to cope with everyday stresses and worry. The problems start when we struggle to cope. That’s when we feel overwhelmed by even apparently small things. Sometimes, we all need extra help to get us through tough times.

That’s why every builder should know the Construction Industry Helpline number. It’s open 24/7 and can advise you on everything from health and wellbeing to money problems. Any construction worker, in regular or gig-economy work, unemployed or retired, can call the number – put it in your phone now 0845 605 1956.

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